Biology Research

Jon N. Seal

Grad Student Position Available in Fungus-Gardening
Ant Research

Title: Assistant Professor
Department: Biology


Research Associate (Microbial Ecology), University of Texas at Austin (2009-2012)
Post Doc (Population Genetics), University of Regensburg, Germany (2007-2009)
PhD (Organismal Biology), Florida State University (2006)
MS (Tropical Biology), University of Missouri-St. Louis (1999)
BS (Biology), University of Missouri-St. Louis (1994)
BA (German), University of Missouri-St. Louis (1994)

Teaching Experience

Entomology Lecture and Laboratory
General Biology Lecture and laboratory
Animal Behavior
Biology of Symbioses

Research Interests

Evolution and Ecology of Symbioses

Overview. After decades of major advances in genetics and evolutionary biology, there has been a growing shift towards whole-organism approaches that attempt to understand how genomes, physiology and behavior are integrated. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF), among other organizations, agree that many of the biological problems—spanning from those in research, education and policy—can only be solved through a comprehensive understanding of the organisms themselves (Bioscience 60: 673-674; 63: 464). Another major development has been the realization that microorganisms are key to understanding the homeostasis of complex, multi-cellular eukaryotes. For example, a multitude of descriptive studies have revealed considerable complexity in symbioses, which consist of more than a single host and a single symbiont. Rather the emerging picture is that symbioses are best viewed as a community of macro-and microorganisms. As a result, the science is ready to move into the next phase by conducting experiments that elucidate the functional roles of these microbes in maintaining organismal homeostasis. A central focus of my research addresses the puzzle by using a combination of experimentation and next-generation sequencing approaches to understand how complex organisms maintain homeostasis over ecological and evolutionary scales.

1. Functional ecology of obligate symbioses

The broad goal of this theme is to identify, via experimentation and next generation sequencing techniques, the mechanisms critical for the maintenance of symbiotic homeostasis at ecological and evolutionary scales. To this end, my laboratory has developed six US fungus-gardening ant species as experimental systems in both laboratory and field settings. Many fungus-gardening ant species exhibit obligate co-phylogenetic relationships with certain fungal species over millions of years. This was long thought to be a classic case of 1:1 coevolution, but recent surveys have indicated that symbiont switching can be common both within and among species. My research investigates the mechanisms that maintain ant-symbiont fidelity or cause failure of ant-fungal combinations. My techniques involve symbiont-switch experiments conducted on species in a highly derived lineage (the leaf-cutting ants, Atta and Acromyrmex) and more ancestral species in the genus Trachymyrmex. Much of my research has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

2. Phylogeography and Ecological Impacts of Symbioses

Symbioses often represent a major evolutionary and ecological transition because the resulting symbiotic entity often no longer resembles the individual partners in terms of ecological function. In the case of fungus-gardening ants, the symbiosis is neither an ant nor fungus and more closely resembles a vertebrate ungulate in terms of biomass and ecological impacts. For example, no other ants consume a diet nearly exclusively of plant fibers, nor does a single fungus usually consume plant biomass amounts rivaling that of a cow. Recent studies have also demonstrated that very few ants or fungi manipulate soils to the magnitude found in fungus-gardening ants— >1MT per hectare per year in some cases. Another important finding has been that ants appear to be among the most important organisms influencing the deposition and creation of soils in the southern US. As a general rule, environments in the southern tier of states tend to be nutrient poor and/or arid so that earthworms (important manipulators of soil) are very rare. Although this research avenue differs by having an ecological focus, I use similar methods, such as experimentation, next-generation sequencing, chemistry, among other techniques to understand the ecology of fungus-gardening ants and other ant species.

Peer Reviewed Publications:

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Other Publications

Heinze, J., Kellner, K. & Seal, J.N. (in preparation) The diversity of social life in ants. Comparative Social Evolution (ed. by P. Abbot and D. Rubenstein). Cambridge University Press.

Seal, J.N. & Tschinkel, W.R. (2012). The under-appreciated non-leaf cutting Attini: A Response to Leal et al. (2011). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 105:1-2

Seal, J.N. (2008) The Superorganism: the beauty, elegance and strangeness of insect societies (Book Review). Myrmecological News, 12, 22.